Surviving the Amazon Effect

The Amazon EffectThe Amazon Effect – a term for the change to the competitive landscape caused by the growth of Amazon.com. Jim Tompkins recently posted a podcast about this topic and how its changing the business climate. Essentially, Amazon has grown to become a competitor with nearly every company – from Walmart to Apple, Home Depot to Netflix. Jim predicts that because of Amazon’s growth, and several other tipping points, a perfect storm of bankruptcies will sweep through an unprecedented number of companies by 2014. The podcast also spends considerable time speculating on what the brick-and-mortar Amazon store will look like – a move that has many large retailers anxious as Amazon continues to expand its business models.

With Amazon competing with everyone, how can a small business endure this new wave of competition and survive the Amazon Effect? Three survival options are (1) differentiate your services to what Amazon does not yet offer, (2) leverage your business’s flexibility to innovate, or (3) join forces with Amazon and become a supplier. Above all, remaining focused on your customers will help weather any challenge.

Differentiate Your Services

“In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In business, it’s differentiate, differentiate, differentiate.” – Robert Goizueta

Obviously, in order to avoid direct competition with Amazon, your business needs to provide a product or service that is different. Though this may seem simple, the great challenge lies in staying ahead of how quickly Amazon’s portfolio is expanding. Having not yet opened a brick-and-mortar location, Amazon’s business model still relies fully on the Internet. Web hosting, software, and eBooks delivered electronically, as well as their enormous SKU count of products ordered electronically, all rely on their website and customers interacting with their system. Although their system is easy to use, that model leaves an opportunity for differentiation.

Highlight your Company’s Service

A key asset that a small business can offer is expertise and service to its customers. Although I sometimes spend hours comparing customer reviews and creating my own analysis of a product, I greatly value the honest expertise and guidance that small businesses provide. The more we become accustomed to working with computers, the more we feel refreshed with positive human interactions. Human relationship building is often absent from the Amazon experience. Therefore, customer service and human interaction can be a key to differentiating.

In addition, you may want to change how you approach your customers. Several years ago, IBM, seeing the trouble ahead for its business if it focused on hardware, switched its business model. Instead, it became an executive consulting company that helps implement its hardware and software. This value-added service satisfies a demand that a 1-Click purchase and a box full of hardware cannot.

Leverage Your Business’s Flexibility to Innovate

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” – Arie de Gues

Being a small business has an inherent strength of flexibility that most large companies wish they still had. Alignment is much easier when you can fit all your employees into one room and share your vision. More importantly, it is much easier to test and implement innovations because implementation on a smaller scale is more feasible. Once you grow as Amazon has, you cannot implement innovations as quickly and easily as a startup.

A friend of mine who recently completed a summer internship at Amazon highlighted one of its weaknesses. My friend had spent the summer working at a distribution center and proposing various process improvements. However, because of the company’s size and emphasis on short-term ROI, he was not able to implement his ideas. To be fair, I do not know any of the details or merits of his suggestions. Nevertheless, my friend did not want to work for them after the internship because of this experience. It highlights not only the lack of flexibility in operations, but also inefficiencies such as paying an MBA intern for a summer with little in return.

Instead, being able to integrate quickly the latest innovations in supply chain – or any other department – will help you withstand the waves of Amazon’s competitive presence.

Join Forces with Amazon and Become a Supplier

If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative. – Author Unknown

For many businesses, the strength of Amazon is a boon rather than a burden. From my dad who sells books on Amazon’s marketplace to consumer goods manufacturers that work through Amazon as a retail channel, more people visiting the site means more potential customers. Recognizing that Amazon will be one of the main retail channels for the next few years can help you prepare your company to fit into its network.

How can you become a supplier to Amazon and other online retailers? Listing your products online is quite easy – most online sites pride themselves on large SKU counts, especially if you are the one holding the inventory. Success depends more on your ability to process orders seamlessly and drop-ship to customers. Quickly shipping to consumers will keep your supplier scorecards high and customer reviews favorable. Many 3PLs can handle these services for you, which is an excellent option if order volumes justify the expense.

Customer Focused Philosophy

The Amazon Effect is certainly a threat to many companies unprepared for the new competitive landscape. I agree with Jim Tompkins that many companies will eventual shut their doors because of the increased competition. However, Amazon’s devotion to its customers, more than their operations or business model, is what has made it so powerful. Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com has said,

“Do not be competitor focused, be customer focused.”

That then is the key to surviving the Amazon effect. Recognize the increased competition, but then work on every part of your supply chain and business to serve the customer better.

What do you think? Please add your comments on how small businesses can survive the Amazon Effect.

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